Baker was the eldest of three children born to Benny and Lucy Elizabeth Baker in Morrisonville, Virginia. He has two full sisters, Doris (b. 1927) Audrey (b. 1930) and one half-sister, Mary Leslie (b. 1940) from his mother's second marriage to Herbert Orrison. When Baker was five years old his father died of diabetes. Being desperately poor due to the Depression, his mother made the heartbreaking decision to give Audrey up for adoption to her brother-in-law and his wife; she then moved the family to Belleville, New Jersey to live with her brother and sister-in-law. Later they moved to urban Baltimore where he graduated from the Baltimore City College high school in 1943 and received his B.A. from the School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in 1947.
At the age of eleven as a self-professed bump on a log, he made the decision to become a writer since he figured "what writers did couldn't even be classified as work." He went on to become an essayist, journalist, and biographer, as well as the host of the PBS show Masterpiece Theatre from 1992 to 2004. Baker wrote the nationally syndicated "Observer" column for the New York Times from 1962 to 1998. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993. In addition, the noted journalist, humorist, essayist, and biographer has written or edited seventeen books. Baker's first Pulitzer was for distinguished commentary for his "Observer" columns (1979) and the second one was for his autobiography, Growing Up (1982). He wrote a sequel to his autobiography in 1989, called The Good Times.
In addition to his regular column and numerous books, Baker has also edited the anthologies The Norton Book of Light Verse (1986) and Russell Baker's Book of American Humor (1993). In 1993, he replaced Alistair Cooke to become the regular host of the PBS television series, Masterpiece Theatre until his own retirement in 2004. During his long career, Baker was a regular contributor to national periodicals such as The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Saturday Evening Post, and McCalls. While still hosting Masterpiece Theatre, he moved to Leesburg, Virginia (not far from his birthplace) where he remains.
Praise and criticism
Neil Postman, in the preface to Conscientious Objections, describes Baker as "like some fourth century citizen of Rome who is amused and intrigued by the Empire's collapse but who still cares enough to mock the stupidities that are hastening its end. He is, in my opinion, a precious national resource, and as long as he does not get his own television show, America will remain stronger than Russia." (1991, xii)
Noam Chomsky accused Baker of "genocide denial with a vengeance" after the latter praised the work of Edmund Morgan, who wrote: "In the limitless and unspoiled world stretching from tropical jungle to the frozen north, there may have been scarcely more than a million inhabitants." Chomsky notes that Morgan's figure of one million is "off by many tens of millions", meaning he and Baker are denying the genocide of many millions of indigenous Americans.
- "The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately defeat him." (a contribution to the philosophy of resistentialism)
- "Misery no longer loves company. Nowadays it insists on it."
- "The worst thing about being a tourist is having other tourists recognize you as a tourist."
- "Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things."
- "Reporters thrive on the world's misfortune. For this reason they often take an indecent pleasure in events that dismay the rest of humanity."
- "I gave up on new poetry myself thirty years ago, when most of it began to read like coded messages passing between lonely aliens on a hostile world."
- "One of the many burdens of the person professing Christianity has always been the odium likely to be heaped upon him by fellow Christians quick to smell out, denounce and punish fraud, hypocrisy and general unworthiness among those who assert the faith. In ruder days, disputes about what constituted a fully qualified Christian often led to sordid quarrels in which the disputants tortured, burned and hanged each other in the conviction that torture, burning, and hanging were Christian things to do..."
- "The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn't require any."
- "Voters inclined to loathe and fear elite Ivy League schools rarely make fine distinctions between Yale and Harvard. All they know is that both are full of rich, fancy, stuck-up and possibly dangerous intellectuals who never sit down to supper in their undershirt no matter how hot the weather gets."
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 9 May 2011.
- Herman, Edward S.; Peterson, David (2010). The Politics of Genocide. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press. pp. 8–9.
See Baker's article, "A Heroic Historian on Heroes". The New York Review of Books. 11 June 2009. Retrieved 15 September 2012.
- The Plot Against People, The New York Times 18 June 1968
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Russell Baker|
- Baker author page from The New York Review of Books
- Baker article archive from The New York Review of Books
|Host of Masterpiece Theatre